By Thomas Hauser
One year ago, like Shakespeare's Caesar, Lennox Lewis bestrode the world of heavyweight boxing like a colossus.
Size, strength, good reflexes, and power don't necessarily make a fighter. More is required. Lennox matured late as a boxer. But as his career progressed, it became clear that he had the required intangibles. Now he's an aging athlete. He knows it, and he's coming to grips with it well.
Lewis today is relaxed and confident. "People are different from one another," he says. "You have to be comfortable with who you are. I can trash-talk like Mike Tyson. I can rap like Roy Jones." A smile lights up his face and he intones:
Lennox Lewis is the best
I'll lay them all to rest
I'll put Chris Byrd back in his nest
Cut off his dreadlocks and stuff them in a chest
The lyrics continue, ending with:
One Klitschko for breakfast; one Klitschko for brunch
Tyson and Roy Jones for lunch
Lewis laughs. "See; I can do it. But that's not me."
History's most popular heavyweight champions have reflected the eras in which they reigned. Jack Dempsey personified the Roaring '20s. Joe Louis was perfectly juxtaposed with the trials of The Great Depression and World War II. Rocky Marciano mirrored the simple optimism of the 1950s. Muhammad Ali was inextricably intertwined with the turmoil of the '60s. Mike Tyson embodied the excess and wanton greed of the late 1980s and '90s.
Lennox Lewis is different. He has always marched to his own drummer. At times, that has frustrated the media and, as a result, the pundits haven't always been kind. "The media can build you up and they can knock you down," Lewis notes. "They can create rumors that make people think a certain way. On a personal level, you read these things and you have to be strong to not let it effect you."
Lennox has been strong. The pay-off came in Memphis on June 8, 2002. "It was always important to me to prove that I'm the best," he acknowledges. "But from the start of my career, there was always Mike Tyson. Whatever else happened, people always said, 'Lennox beat this guy, and Lennox beat that guy, but what about Tyson?' I had to fight Tyson. Otherwise, the history books would have read, 'Yeah, Lennox was good but he never beat Tyson.'"
The fight almost didn't happen. First, HBO and Showtime had to iron out their differences. Then the fighters had to come to terms with their respective networks. And once that was done, Tyson came close to sabotaging the entire event at the January 22, 2002, kick-off press conference in New York.
"I didn't know if Mike would show or not," Lennox reminisces. "But I got dressed up and went to the press conference. Once I was there, I asked about security and was told it was all taken care of, but I had a funny feeling. We were supposed to be announced separately, walk out on stage, get on separate platforms, and face the audience. Mike was announced first. Right away, I could see that he was like a pot steaming. Then I was announced. As soon as I walked onstage, Mike came toward me. One of my security people stepped in front of him. Mike took a swing at him. And my security is an extension of me, so it was like he took a swing at me."
Chaos followed. Lewis whacked Tyson with an overhand right. Both fighters were pushed to the floor. Mike then bit through Lennox's pants and took a chunk out of his thigh. Tyson subsequently denied the bite, but as Lennox observes, "When someone is biting you, you tend to look down to see who it is that's doing the biting." The press conference concluded with an obscenity-laced tirade that was vintage Tyson.
"I wondered afterward, 'What the hell is wrong with this guy?' Lennox says. Either he didn't want to fight or he was mad or both. I decided it was both. None of his ranting bothered me. I'm into reality, and that was cartoon talk. But the bite motivated me. When I went into training, it was in my mind that Tyson had drawn first blood."
When all the hoopla was done, it came down to the fight. It always does. Eventually, the moment arrived when Lewis and Tyson left their respective dressing rooms and walked down the aisle to the ring in Memphis. Lightning bolts of excitement flashed through the arena. "It's happening! They're really here."
Lewis remembers his ring-walk well. "I was totally focused on what I wanted to do in the fight," he says. "Nothing else around me mattered. I was already fighting as I walked to the ring. And from the moment I stepped into the ring until the end of the first round, my eyes never left Tyson. When I got in the ring, Mike tried to appear menacing but he wasn't. During the referee's instructions, I heard what the ref was saying but I wasn't listening. I was focusing completely on Mike."
The bell for round one sounded, and it quickly became clear that Lennox had more of an attitude than Tyson. He had come to Memphis to whack Mike out; he thought he would; and he did.
"The first round of a fight is like the first move in chess," Lewis explains. "It's about who has control of the board. The bell rings and it's a struggle until you know what you can and can't do and everything comes into place. In Memphis, right away, I knew that mentally Tyson wasn't there. But you have to remember, you're out there all alone and you have to know when to take chances and when not to. One punch can change everything. One punch and you're hanging on to survive and no one else can save you."
The only weapon the lion has to fight with is the lion. Over eight brutal rounds, Lewis did his job and Tyson didn't.
"The biggest problem I had was the referee," Lennox remembers. "I had to be careful because it was obvious that the referee was against me. I'm not a dirty fighter but he was acting like I was, so there was pressure on me the whole fight. If Tyson had hit me with one good shot and wobbled me for an instant, that ref would have stopped the fight."
It ended in round eight with Tyson stretched out on the canvas; blood streaming from his mouth, nose, and cuts above both eyes. Then, in the post-fight interview, Iron Mike all but genuflected before his conqueror.
"Some people say he punked out when he reached over and wiped the blood off my cheek," Lennox acknowledges. "But I didn't see it that way. I saw it as a sign of respect from one gladiator to another once the fight was over. In that moment, Mike was saying, 'You're going on TV so get the blood off your face.' But to be honest, when he did it, I had no trust for him at all. I could see him giving me a hug in the ring and then biting off my ear. Even now, if Tyson came over to shake hands with me, I'd keep my eyes on him. I don't have any hate toward Mike Tyson, but I still want to make sure that any situation we're in together is secure."
Lewis-Tyson was the high point of Lennox's career. "That was my ultimate fight," he states. "After Memphis, it was, 'Thank you; mission accomplished.'"
The next 10 months were, in Lewis's words, devoted to "family time, social time, and girlfriend time." Then he readied to fight Kirk Johnson. But two weeks before their scheduled June 21st bout, the challenger pulled out with an injury.
"And all of a sudden," Lennox remembers, "the Klitschko fight was there. Manny was saying I should go for it. Adrian was saying go for it. HBO told me it was Klitschko or nobody. And looking at the whole spectrum, the business as well as the boxing aspects of it, I decided to take the fight. I'd been preparing for Kirk Johnson. All of my sparring had been with short guys, the boxing type. I thought I'd be able to adjust to Klitschko's style as the fight went on. But in retrospect, the change of opponents threw me off."
Lewis versus Vitali Klitschko was an exciting inartistic brawl that ended after six rounds when the ring doctor ruled that a jagged cut on the challenger's left eyelid mandated stopping the fight. Klitschko objected vehemently. The crowd also voiced its discontent.
"The booing bothered me," Lennox admits. "We'd both fought as hard as we could. We'd fought and fought, giving it everything we had." As for the fight itself, Lewis posits, "Klitschko got off to a good start, but he was fighting off emotion and that lasts just so long. Also, I'm a slow starter. As a fight goes on, I get stronger. I could have been in better shape. If I'd been in Tyson shape or Rahman-rematch shape, I would have looked better. But I'm satisfied with the Klitschko fight. Not happy about it, but satisfied. I brought Klitschko into the deep water. And if the ring doctor hadn't stopped it, he would have drowned."
That view is seconded by Lewis's longtime adversary, Evander Holyfield, who says, "Lennox doesn't give Klitschko enough credit because Lennox doesn't give anybody credit. Lennox is arrogant. But it doesn't matter who was winning the fight. What matters is who won. Lennox busted him up. They had to stop it. Lennox won the fight."
Klitschko was the mandatory challenger for Lewis's WBC title. That means, under WBC rules, Lennox has until June 21, 2004, before he must defend or relinquish his crown. Recently, he announced that he won't fight again this year. Meanwhile, the WBC has been sending out signals that it will authorize a fight between Vitali Klitschko and Hasim Rahman for an "interim" heavyweight belt.
Once, boxing had "world champions." Now, the desire for multiple sanctioning fees has given us "world" champions, "super" champions, and "interim" champions. But there's only one heavyweight champion of the world at present, and everyone knows who it is. Lewis would still be favored in a bout against any other fighter. He has no fear of a Klitschko rematch and means it when he says, "I've already proven that I can beat Vitali Klitschko on my worst day."
As for Roy Jones, Lennox says flatly, "When fighting Roy was brought to my attention, I could see that it was a big-money fight but I wasn't serious about it. It wouldn't be good for either one of us, given where we are and what we've accomplished in boxing. If Roy runs away from me all night, it's a boring fight. If he doesn't, he gets hurt. The only way either of us would win is economically, and neither of us needs the money."
That, of course, leads to the question of retirement. A year ago, after beating Mike Tyson, Lennox acknowledged, "There's always someone to fight. That's the drug of the sport." Then he added, "What else is there for me to prove? That I can be Evander Holyfield and not know when to quit? Or prove that I'm stuck in the sport and won't get out until I'm speaking so people don't understand me?"
Now Lewis is even closer to calling it a day. He's talking about that time in the future "when I see myself taking my children out, doing whatever my kids want me to do with them." As for the role that boxing might play in his future, he says, "Having been in the business for so long, I think it's time for me to share my knowledge with some of the young fighters coming up. Boxing needs people with good ethics and good knowledge to step up and help the fighters. I'm not sure how I'll do that, but it's something I want to do."
Then Lennox raises his right hand to eye level, holding his index finger and thumb three inches apart, and declares, "I couldn't retire without fighting Tyson because that argument had to end. After Tyson, I was this close to retiring, but I decided to give it one more year. Now . . ."
The heavyweight champion adjusts his index finger and thumb so there's only a hair's width between them.
"Now I'm this close."
HBO will wave a lot of money in Lewis's face to encourage him to fight again. That means the temptation will be there. But Lennox's present plan is to retire. He knows that only two heavyweight champions (Rocky Marciano and Gene Tunney) retired with their titles in tact. All the others -- Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Jack Johnson among them -- left on a loss. Also, Lennox is a student of history. It's not lost on him that Marciano and Tunney were both white.
Now is the time to go. Lennox seems to acknowledge as much when he says, "Someone will emerge after I'm gone. A new star will be born and the cycle will continue. All I ask is that you write the truth; about me, about boxing, about the world. The truth is fine. What I've accomplished will speak for itself."
Lennox Lewis is a man of dignity and grace, who has been the best heavyweight in the world during his reign. Boxing will miss him more than it knows.
Award-winning author Thomas Hauser welcomes reader feedback at: thauserrcn.com.